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The Nation

Gore Goes Hollywood

I first posted this at www.davidcorn.com....

Al Gore for President?

Not really. But l recently attended a screening of his new film, An Inconvenient Truth. And as the film ran, I--and probably many in the crowd--couldn't stop thinking this one thought: why wasn't he like this in 2000? The documentary follows Gore as he travels the world giving a slide show on the reality and perilous consequences of global warming, and much of the film shows him presenting his laptop show-and-tell to what seems to be a hand-picked crowd in a space-age auditorium. On the screen, he comes across as passionate, smart, committed, self-deprecating, and funny--all in the right balance. But when the film shows Gore delivering the slide show to real audiences, he does seem a slight bit pedantic. It's a distinction the movie does not emphasize--but a telling one. This guy had the potential to be a decent leader, but when it counted he could not pull it together. And this film is a painful reminder.

That is not the point of this engaging documentary. It is meant to be a wake-up call. And it does sound one damn big alarm bell. Halfway into it, my gut was clenched, as I despaired about the future of our beautiful blue and white orb. Professor Gore presents a tutorial that overwhelms with facts and graphics, including graphs, satellite imagery of the Earth, video footage from Antarctica, and fancy computer stimulations (such as a harrowing one showing how much of Beijing, New York City, Holland, and San Francisco would be flooded by rising sea levels). Gore makes the point over and over--and it does bear repeating--that there is no longer any debate over the science: global warming is happening, its causes are predominantly human-linked, and the results will be awful. Take that, Michael Crichton. And while Gore's spiffy presentation--which includes a cartoon from Matt Groening's Futurama (an animated Fox show that one of his daughters worked on)--is full of bad news, he does list all the first-steps that could be taken to lower global warming emissions quickly, if there were the political will to do so.

That political will does not yet exist--particularly within the current administration and Congress, as Gore notes (with various jabs) in the film. And Gore is honest about the overall failure of the political system to deal with this issue--and his own failure. He talks about his efforts within Congress over many years to turn global warming into a compelling legislative matter. "I feel as if I have failed to get this message across," he says, explaining that he thought the story was so "compelling" that Congress would have to act. But it hasn't. And he knows why: if a politician acknowledges the full ramifications of global warming then he or she has a "moral imperative" to address it. And that's the tough part: telling Americans they have to change their energy-gorging ways. So they duck the issue. (One nifty graphic in the film shows that the United States is now responsible for about a quarter of all the global warming gasses being spewed into the atmosphere. Another chart noted that mileage standards for cars are much higher in China than the United States.)

After the film was over, Gore spoke to the crowd and took questions. He was much better than his performances in the 2000 presidential debates but not as engaging as he was in the film. One lesson: we all can use a good director. But the question I wanted to ask--alas, I was not called on--was this: why didn't you give this slide show during the 2000 campaign? I'm not suggeting that a doomy hi-tech, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it presentation would have won him the election (though showing the computer stimulation depicting the bottom fifth of Florida state being subsumed by the sea might have helped him in that swing state). But at least it would have allowed Gore to show off his best side. I haven't read Joe Klein's new book, Politics Lost, but I'm told the section on Gore notes that at one point Gore's aides, concerned about the authenticity gap issue, asked him what he really cared about and what he really wanted to talk about on the campaign trail. Global warming, he replied. His aides then proceeded to undermine his big global warming speech, making sure it did not receive much media attention. And Gore never broke loose from such restraints.

The point of my question was not to get Gore to admit he let Democrats--and himself--down (even if he did win a majority of the popular vote and lost the election due to a lousy Supreme Court decision). I wanted him to reflect on why--now that he is free from electoral politics (or so it seems)--he is able to fiercely throw himself into this crusade. What does that say about the political system's apparent inability to handle such a grave threat and to accommodate a concerned crusader taking on a large and difficult challenge? In other words, can Gore convincingly say that we are not doomed by the limits of our political system (which, perhaps, mirror the limits of human nature--or, at least, American human nature)? These issues did not come up in the Q&A. But Gore did quip, "I don't claim expertise in politics." No comment.

The movie is strong and well-composed by director Davis Guggenheim. It is indeed, as the promo says, the most frightening film you'll ever see, and it is cause-y. The team behind it--including Laurie David and Hollywood producer Lawrence Bender--do not hide their agenda: to scare folks into action. Will they succeed? I don't know how much success one ex-pol with a slideshow can have. But it certainly cannot hurt if his message is echoed in theaters across the country. (It starts arriving in theaters on May 24.) And since this is a campaign, not merely a movie, Gore, Guggenheim and the producers want you to visit the film's website. In the meantime, anyone who watches this no-happy-ending flick will have to hope that addressing Gore's "inconvenient truth" is not a Mission Impossible.

Reconstruction Watch Part V: We Deserve Answers

In the Washington Post last week, Griff Witte reported that American businessman Philip Bloom--whose companies were awarded $8.6 million in Iraq reconstruction contracts--pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe US officials with more than $2 million in cash and gifts in exchange for the reconstruction deals.

Three officials of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority have already been implicated and more arrests are expected.

According to Stuart W. Bowen Jr., Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (and former Associate Counsel to the Bush White House), "This shows oversight is working. It will send a message to those involved in similar schemes that we are on the case."

Will it?

As the Wall Street Journal reports, attorney Alan Grayson is representing dozens of whistleblowers who are suing contractors suspected of defrauding the government. But under The False Claims Act, not one of these cases can proceed or be disclosed to the public until the Bush administration makes a decision as to whether to join in the suit.

There are reportedly 50 such lawsuits pending against firms like Halliburton. Some were filed more than two years ago, and the law states that decisions are supposed to be made by the Bush Administration within 60 days. But the law also allows the administration to seek extensions as it sees fit and so far it has done so in all but one case.

Grayson thinks the reason for the delay is all too clear. "The Bush administration has made a conscious decision to sweep the cases under the rug for as long as possible. And the more bad news that comes out of Iraq, the more motivation they have to do so."

The one case the Bush administration did allow to proceed--though it declined to be a party to it--was against Custer Battles, which was forced to pay $10 million in penalties.

With a White House that is more than cozy with so many of its no-bid contractors...and a motive to keep bad news from hitting the press--especially when it comes to the misuse of taxpayer (and 2006 voters') money… it is once again clear that only a bipartisan independent war profiteering commission will get the answers the American people deserve.

Until that happens, tell your representative to turn up the heat for full disclosure on these pending whistleblower lawsuits. Enough with the sorry delay tactics. It's time for answers now.

*Previous Reconstruction Watch Posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.And on the need for an Independent War Profiteering Commission: here and here.

GOP Retreats on Reform

In the ongoing fight to clean up Congress, the reformers won a minor victory when the House Republican leadership was forced to yank its bogus lobbying "reform" bill off the House floor today.

The move came shortly after Democrats Louise Slaughter and Jim McGovern, both on the House Rules Committee, spoke out against a rule to close debate on a supposedly "open government" bill. When Chairman David Dreier realized he didn't have the votes to pass the rule, he simply yanked it from consideration. As Slaughter told Dreier at a Rules hearing yesterday, "Everybody in this town has beaten up on your bill."

Members of the House Appropriations Committee, led by powerful chairman Jerry Lewis, wanted earmark reform to extend to tax and spending bills. GOP moderates, led by Chris Shays, were unhappy about the steady weakening of an already-toothless piece of legislation. Democrats were virtually united against its passage. And Republican Rep. Joel Hefley, who Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert booted as chairman of the House Ethics Committee in February 2005 after the panel rebuked Tom DeLay three times, was going to speak on the Democrats side.

Rather then face another humiliating defeat for the House Leadership, Dreier pulled the plug. No word yet on when it will resurface. As McGovern, a stalwart progressive, said today: "The Republican Leadership's so-called 'reform' bill deserves to collapse under the weight of its own hypocrisy."

UPDATE: House just reconvened to debate lobbying reform rule for one hour.

Bring the Troops Home Amendment

As the Senate considers another emergency supplemental appropriations bill to fund the occupation of Iraq, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, has proposed an an amendment that would require the redeployment of U.S. forces from the country by the end of this year.

"Our country desperately needs a new vision for strengthening our national security, and it starts by redeploying U.S. forces from Iraq," Feingold explained. "Our military has performed valiantly in Iraq, but the indefinite presence of large numbers of U.S. forces there tends to weaken our ability to fight the global terrorist networks that threaten us today."

Feingold, who in June, 2005, became the first senator to call for an exit strategy, won the support of 40 Senators in November, 2005, for an amendment that proposed a flexible timetable for the withdrawal. His current amendment, while pressing for a deadline for a general withdrawal, maintains a measure of flexibility with regard to limited initiatives that might continue beyond December 31. In other words, it is a moderate proposal that will be opposed only by those who n-- whether they admit it or not -- have embraced the concept of open-ended occupation.

"Our current path is unsustainable," says Feingold. "While this amendment recognizes the need for certain U.S. forces to be engaged in counter-terrorism activities, the training of Iraqi security services, and the protection of essential U.S. infrastructure, it also recognizes that the President's current strategy in Iraq is undermining our nation's national security."

The Feingold amendment tests all senators. It asks Senate Democrats to stop playing games and make a clear commitment to opposing the Bush administration's policy of permanent warmaking. It asks Senate Republicans -- especially those, such as Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee and Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, who have been critical of the war -- to make an honest break with the White House.

The American people now recognize that the war was a mistake. They understand that an exit strategy is needed. If the Senate fails to back Feingold's proposal, it will not be the Wisconsin Democrats who stands outside the political mainstream, but, rather, those senators in both parties who cannot bring themselves to chart a course indepedent of that misguided one dictated by George Bush, Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld.

Republicans Fake Reform

Republicans are in denial. They've forgotten all the favors they did for Jack Abramoff. They continue to raise unprecedented amounts of money from lobbyists on K Street. And today they're expected to vote for a lobbying "reform" bill that is so weak and watered-down one watchdog called it a "complete joke." A bill intended to strengthen representative democracy only insults it.

"My leadership doesn't think we have an ethics problem and doesn't believe in reform," remarked Rep. Chris Shays, one of the few Republican reformers left in Congress. His leadership, as the Washington Post describes today, is betting that the public won't notice, or won't care. When members of Congress went home recently for recess, their constituents complained about the Iraq war, immigration and gas prices--no matter that the GOP is on the wrong side of those issues as well.

It's true that few voters are following the intricacies of this debate or pressing their leaders for tougher ethics reform legislation. But everywhere you go, Americans are disgusted by the influence of lobbyists, skeptical of Washington rhetoric and convinced the system is broken. They're right. Sour voters usually turn on the party in power. Republicans elected in 1994 ought to know this.

And the Democratic leadership, for its part, has been remarkably inept at making the oft-repeated rhetoric about a "culture of corruption" stick. The top Democrat on the paralyzed House Ethics Committee recently was forced to resign. Another rank-and-file member, William Jefferson, is almost certain to be indicted. It may not be easy to sell a message of "we're bad, but the other side is worse," to the American people.

Debate on HR 4975 begins this morning. Click here to tell your Representative to vote against this charade and for real reform.

UPDATE: House just pulled bill from the floor. Unclear why. There could be some fireworks later today.

Reconstruction Watch Part V: We Deserve Answers

In the Washington Post last week, Griff Witte reported that American businessman Philip Bloom--whose companies were awarded $8.6 million in Iraq reconstruction contracts--pleaded guilty to attempting to bribe U.S. officials with more than $2 million in cash and gifts in exchange for the reconstruction deals.

Three officials of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority have already been implicated and more arrests are expected.

According to Stuart W. Bowen Jr., Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (and former Associate Counsel to the Bush White House), "This shows oversight is working. It will send a message to those involved in similar schemes that we are on the case."

Will it, indeed?

As the Wall Street Journal reports, Attorney Alan Grayson is representing dozens of whistleblowers who are suing contractors suspected of defrauding the government. But under The False Claims Act, not one of these cases can proceed or be disclosed to the public until the Bush administration makes a decision as to whether to join in the suit.

There are reportedly 50 such lawsuits pending against firms like Halliburton. Some were filed more than two years ago, and the law states that decisions are supposed to be made by the Bush Administration within 60 days. But the law also allows the administration to seek extensions as it sees fit and so far it has done so in all but one case.

Grayson thinks the reason for the delay is all too clear. "The Bush administration has made a conscious decision to sweep the cases under the rug for as long as possible. And the more bad news that comes out of Iraq, the more motivation they have to do so."

The one case the Bush administration did allow to proceed--though it declined to be a party to it--was against Custer Battles, who was forced to pay $10 million in penalties.

With a White House that is more than cozy with so many of its no-bid contractors... and a motive to keep bad news from hitting the press--especially when it comes to the misuse of taxpayer (and 2006 voters') money… it is once again clear that only a bipartisan independent war profiteering commission will get the answers the American people deserve.

Until that happens, tell your representative to turn up the heat for full disclosure on these pending whistleblower lawsuits. Enough with the sorry delay tactics. It's time for answers now.

*Previous Reconstruction Watch Posts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4And on the need for an Independent War Profiteering Commission: here and here.

Snow Job: White House Prevaricator-in-Chief

While it is not merely fair but necessary to challenge the Supreme Court nominations of presidents who seek to stamp a lasting ideological imprint on the Constitution, and even to deny them Cabinet picks who have records of lawlessness, it certainly seems reasonable that they should have freedom of choice when it comes to selecting their fabulists.

It is the job of White House press secretaries to baffle and bamboozle an intentionally naive press corps and, by extension, the Congress and the American people.

The soon-to-be-forgotten Scott McClellan, like his only somewhat more memorable predecessor, Ari Fleischer, never hesitated to dissemble the truth. McClellan's problem as far as this White House was concerned was not his dishonesty, but rather the ineptitude he so frequently evidenced when practicing to deceive.

Veteran Republican retainer Tony Snow will probably be a better prevaricator-in-chief than either McClellan or Fleischer. Why? Because he is a confirmed ideologue who actually believes at least some of the big lies that he will be peddling.

After all, this is the Fox News commentator who, after the most recent State of the Union address, described the Bush administration as having a "brilliant foreign policy."

Snow is, as well, the political personality who said of what honest conservatives and liberals describe as the most imperial presidency in history: "No president has looked this impotent this long when it comes to defending presidential powers and prerogatives."

With all due respect, while George Bush may be incompetent, the boy king has never suffered from impotence when roused to do battle against the system of checks and balances, the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution on behalf of his Patriot Act, his warrantless wiretapping schemes and the White House-orchestrated punishment of those – like Ambassador Joe Wilson – who have dared reveal the cynical manipulations of intelligence that were used to make the "case" for his undeclared war.

If Tony Snow really does not think that George Bush has done enough to defend presidential powers and prerogatives, then he is a fine fit for this imperial presidency. He has not merely drunk the Kool-Aid, he has complained that the mix is not strong enough. Where Scott McClellan listlessly disseminated distortion, Snow will do so with gusto.

California Governor's Race A-Simmerin'

Six weeks out from the primary vote that will select the challenger to Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election, the top two Democratic rivals are slugging it out in a bloody free-for-all. State Treasurer Phil Angelides gathered endorsements from unions, Democratic interest groups, and from elected officials early on in his campaign -- trying to create a certain sense of inevitability about his nomination. But his opponent, former E-Bay exec and state Controller Steve Westly, has got the really big bucks -- plowing some $22 million of his own fortune into his campaign. Westly has also has a widening lead in the polls.

The race may take a dramatic turn this weekend in Sacramento when the California Democratic Party meets in convention. The once slam-dunk Angelides may be denied the official party endorsement by the surging Westly. Stay tuned for more. I'll be doing some live blogging from the convention floor.

Frank Church and the Abyss of Warrantless Wiretapping

Thirty years ago, on April 26, 1976, the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, delivered its final report detailing the lawlessness of U.S. intelligence agencies and the need for Congress to reassert the Constitutional system of checks and balances to order to rein in the cloak-and-dagger excesses of the executive branch of the federal government.

The committee, mercifully referred to by the last name of its chair, U.S. Senator Frank Church, D-Idaho, produced fourteen reports on the formation of U.S. intelligence agencies, the manner in which they had and were continuing to operate, and the abuses of law and of power -- up to and including murder -- committed by these agencies in Chile, the Congo, Cuba, Vietnam and other nations that experienced the attention of U.S. authorities in the Cold War era.

The committee also made 96 recommendations for how to do that. Some of those recommendations, such as the committee's call for creation of a permanent Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and for a ban on assassinations of foreign leaders, were implemented. But, as the current controversy over President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program illustrates, the potential abuses about which the Church Committee warned were not entirely -- nor even adequately -- thwarted.

It was not for lack of trying by Senator Church, one of the most courageous legislators in American history, and his colleagues on the committee. As Senator Church said when the committee completed its work: "The United States must not adopt the tactics of the enemy. Means are important, as ends. Crisis makes it tempting to ignore the wise restraints that make men free. But each time we do so, each time the means we use are wrong, our inner strength, the strength which makes us free, is lessened."

The fundamental charge of the Church Committee to the Congress and the American people was not found in the details of the reports specific allegations and recommendations. Rather, it was in the committee's bold reassertion of the founding principle of the Republic -- that only by checking and balancing the excesses of the executive branch can basic liberties be defended.

To renew the inner strength of the nation, the Church Committee first recalled the threats that arise when the executive branch is allowed to operate in secrecy and without constraint:

The natural tendency of Government is toward abuse of power. Men entrusted with power, even those aware of its dangers, tend, particularly when pressured, to slight liberty.

Our constitutional system guards against this tendency. It establishes many different checks upon power. It is those wise restraints which 'keep men free. In the field of intelligence those restraints have too often been ignored.

The three main departures in the intelligence field from the constitutional plan for controlling abuse of power have been:

(a) Excessive Executive Power.

In a sense the growth of domestic intelligence activities mirrored the growth of presidential power generally. But more than any other activity, more even than exercise of the war power, intelligence activities have been left to the control of the Executive.

For decades Congress and the courts as well as the press and the public have accepted the notion that the control of intelligence activities was the exclusive prerogative of the Chief Executive and his surrogates. The exercise of this power was not questioned or even inquired into by outsiders. Indeed, at times the power was seen as flowing not from the law, but as inherent, in the Presidency.

Whatever the theory, the fact was that intelligence activities were essentially exempted from the normal system of checks and balances. Such Executive power, not founded in law or checked by Congress or the courts, contained the seeds of abuse and its growth was to be expected.

(b) Excessive Secrecy.

Abuse thrives on secrecy. Obviously, public disclosure, of matters such as the names of intelligence agents or the technological details of collection methods is inappropriate. But in the field of intelligence, secrecy has been extended to inhibit review of the basic programs and practices themselves.

Those within the Executive branch and the Congress who would exercise their responsibilities wisely must be fully informed. The American public, as well, should know enough about intelligence activities to be able to apply its good sense to the underlying issues of policy and morality.

Knowledge is the key to control. Secrecy should no longer be allowed to shield the existence of constitutional, legal and moral problems from the scrutiny of all three branches of government or from the American people themselves.

(c) Avoidance of the Rule of Law.

Lawlessness by Government breeds corrosive cynicism among the people and erodes the trust upon which government depends.

Here, there is no sovereign who stands above the law. Each of us, from presidents to the most disadvantaged citizen, must obey the law. As intelligence operations developed, however, rationalizations were fashioned to immunize them from the restraints of the Bill of Rights and the specific prohibitions of the criminal code. The experience of our investigation leads us to conclude that such rationalizations are a dangerous delusion.

Senator Church was even blunter in his rejection of the "spin" that would have Americans believe their government is protecting them or spreading democracy when it employs secret electronic eavesdropping at home or "covert action" abroad. Covert action, explained the Idaho Democrat, is nothing more than "a semantic disguise for murder, coercion, blackmail, bribery, the spreading of lies, whatever is deemed useful to bending other countries to our will."

The Church Committee's plan to counter the abuses of the executive branch boiled down to a call for Congress to recognize anew that:

The Constitutional amendments protecting speech and assembly and individual privacy seek to preserve values at the core of our heritage, and vital to our future. The Bill of Rights, and the Supreme Court's decisions interpreting it suggest three principles which we have followed:

(1) Governmental action which directly infringes the rights of free speech and association must be prohibited. The First Amendment recognizes that even if useful to a proper end, certain governmental actions are simply too dangerous to permit at all. It commands that "Congress shall make no law" abridging freedom of speech or assembly.

(2) The Supreme Court, in interpreting that command, has required that any governmental action which has a collateral (rather than direct) impact upon the rights of speech and assembly is permissible only if it meets two tests. First, the action must be undertaken only to fulfill a compelling governmental need, and second, the government must use the least restrictive means to meet that need. The effect upon protected interests must be minimized.

(3) Procedural safeguards -- "auxiliary precautions" as they were characterized in the Federalist Papers -- must be adopted along with substantive restraints. For example, while the Fourth Amendment prohibits only "unreasonable" searches and seizures, it requires a procedural check for reasonableness-the obtaining of a judicial warrant upon probable cause from a neutral magistrate. Our proposed procedural checks range from judicial review of intelligence activity before or after the fact, to formal and high level Executive branch approval, to greater disclosure and more effective Congressional oversight.

It is notable that Senator Church was especially concerned about the threat posed by the National Security Agency if a future president were to abuse those powers.

"I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss," explained Church. "That is the abyss from which there is no return."

Three decades after the Church Committee submitted its final report, President Bush admits to ordering the NSA to spy on the telephone conversations of Americans on American soil without obtaining warrants.

Most of Congress stands idly by.

Not so the senator who has most aggressively challenged the Bush administration's reckless disregard for the Constitution that provides Americans with both a Bill of Rights and a system of checks and balances to protect them.

Senator Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat who has asked the Senate to censure Bush for ordering the NSA to launch the warrantless wiretapping program, marked the anniversary of the issuance of the Church Committee's final report by describing the committee's work and the challenge to executive excess that it produced as "a watershed moment that spurred Congress to assume its critical role in overseeing the U.S. intelligence community." In particular, he noted, "The Church Committee's report also led to legislation requiring the executive branch to inform the congressional intelligence committees of all intelligence activities."

"Yet," Feingold added, "for over four years, the Bush Administration has ignored this law, hiding its illegal warrantless surveillance program from the full committees, and continuing to deny the committees critical information. At a time when Congress has failed to assert its constitutional and statutory role in conducting intelligence oversight, we should recall the groundbreaking efforts of the Church Committee, and the responsibilities that came with the establishment of the congressional intelligence committees. The American people have entrusted us to protect them from our enemies while ensuring that our government upholds the law and the Constitution. We must renew our commitment to that charge. As Senator Church said 30 years ago today, ‘Our experience as a nation has taught us that we must place our trust in laws, and not solely in men. The founding fathers foresaw excess as the inevitable consequence of granting any part of government unchecked power.'"